Saturday, March 13, 2021

ZAKA founder accused of sexual assault, rape of minors


Co-founder and chairman of the ZAKA volunteer emergency response organization, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, was accused Thursday of sexual assault, rape, and abuse by six people in a report by the Haaretz daily, which said there are likely many more cases.

The allegations against Meshi-Zahav, who is a prominent figure in the ultra-Orthodox community who earlier this month was awarded the Israel Prize's lifetime achievement award, were made by both men and women, some of whom were minors at the time of the alleged events.

Meshi-Zahav denied the allegations. "The claims are baseless; I don't know how I'll be able to rehabilitate my good name in light of the irrevocable damage caused to me."



According to the Haaretz report, Meshi-Zahav "paid" his alleged victims with money and other gifts – and also with prostitutes for sexual trysts that he would join. The report also alleged that one of Meshi-Zahav's female family members occasionally partook in these encounters.

Some of the young women allegedly exploited by Meshi-Zahav, according to the report, called him a "righteous person" and testified that he supported them financially. They also, however, detailed sexual acts he performed on them, including acts of degradation.

Meshi-Zahav took advantage of his status, power, money, and even the organization he heads to commit sexual assault, the Haaretz report said.

One alleged victim said he forcibly undressed her and raped her after offering financial aid. The woman said that while Meshi-Zahav forced himself on her, he threatened, "If you talk, a ZAKA jeep will run you over."

One of Meshi-Zahav's alleged male victims claimed the Zaka chairman sexually molested him at the synagogue where they prayed together, when he was only five years old.

Another said Meshi-Zahav repeatedly abused him when he was a teen, only realizing years later he was his "escort, a prostitute in the full sense of the word," he told Haaretz.

The report said several other women have testified that he masturbated in front of them and touched them sexually.

Of the six allegations reported, the earliest is from 1983, and the latest from 2011. At least one case reached police, but was closed in 2014 due to a lack of evidence.

A source who spoke to Israel Hayom confirmed the general veracity of the Haaretzreport, without confirming any of the allegations specifically. The source said many residents of several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem knew of Meshi-Zahav's actions but did not say anything or report him to authorities.

"It's a shame that the acts attributed to Meshi-Zahav will now stain the entire Haredi community, especially seeing as how he hasn't belonged to it for many years now," the source told Israel Hayom.

The source also told Israel Hayom that after it was announced that Meshi-Zahav had won the Israel Prize's lifetime achievement award, he asked a prominent figure in the Haredi community how to deal with the problematic situation. The prominent figure, according to the source, told him: "The fact that you chose him to [light the torch] on Independence Day is your problem; [in the Haredi community] he doesn't count."

In his denial of the allegations, Meshi-Zahav added: "My request to receive elementary information and basic details was rejected. I asked to meet, and was rejected. I demanded to respond to the [Haaretz] report, which is essentially a 'targeted assassination,' within two hours.

"I will say generally that it appears Haaretz has fallen prey to elements with commercial and economic interests [who wish] to cause me harm. They are joined by extremist elements from the Haredi world, who are affronted by my unique path [in that world]. These elements have launched a campaign of vengeance against me, among other reasons because my children enlisted in the IDF, two of them in combat units, because after lighting the Independence Day torch I said, 'To the glory of the State of Israel,' and now, after the announcement that I won the Israel Prize.

"Added to this is my occasional criticism about some of the more extremist leaders in the Haredi sector. Ever since it was announced I would receive the Israel Prize, I have been targeted with various threats via telephone. Following the death of my parents, I received phone calls expressing joy at their passing. I was spit on in the street. I received other threats, too, some of which I sent to Haaretz as well. To my sorrow, this is part of the price I pay for the path that I chose."

Meshi-Zahav was a vocal critic of some of the ultra-Orthodox leadership during the coronavirus pandemic, as some prominent community figures downplayed the virus.

Founded in 1989, ZAKA is one of Israel's most recognizable emergency response groups and has responded to various disasters in other countries.

In addition to providing emergency response services and assisting in search and rescue operations, ZAKA also helps in the grim task of finding and identifying body parts following terror attacks, air crashes and other disasters.



No comments: